Is Legalization Driving Kids To Pot?

Dec 19 2013 @ 12:45pm

A new federal report (pdf) on adolescent drug use graphs the percentage of kids smoking marijuana over time:

Marijuana Use

The report (NYT) finds that more high schoolers smoked weed this year than last year and that fewer view it as harmful. And the numbers of teens drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and using other drugs have fallen:

The report raises concerns that the relaxation of restrictions on marijuana, which can now be sold legally in 20 states and the District of Columbia, has been influencing use of the drug among teenagers. Health officials are concerned by the steady increase and point to what they say is a growing body of evidence that adolescent brains, which are still developing, are susceptible to subtle changes caused by marijuana.

Phillip Smith argues that the data don’t really support the headline:

There are short term ups and downs, but they seem to be of mainly rhetorical and polemical significance. If you look at the handy tables at the end of the report, you see that combined lifetime marijuana use for all three grades (8, 10, and 12), was at 30.7% last year, about the same as it was in 1995 (31.6%) or 2005 (30.8%). Much happens, but little changes. Ditto for annual use: 26.1% in 1995, 23.4% in 2005, 24.7% last year. Ditto for monthly use: 15.6% in 1995, 13.4% in 2005, 15.1% last year. Ditto for daily use: 2.7% in 1995, 2.9% in 2005, 3.6% last year. The daily use figures could be alarming (“Daily Teen Pot Smokers Up 25% Since 1995″), except the trend-line is not steadily upward, but varies from year to year (it was 3.7% in in 2001 and 2.7% in 2007).

NORML also pushes back against the media narrative:

Overlooked in the mainstream media’s reporting is that the use of both alcohol and tobacco among all grades surveyed has fallen consistently since the mid-1990s and now stands at all-time lows. (In fact, more teens now acknowledge using marijuana than cigarettes, the study found.) Teens are also finding alcohol to be less available and are far less likely to engage in binge drinking now than ever before. By contrast, teens self-reported annual use of cannabis has largely held steady since the late 1990s but remains elevated compared to the historic lows reported in the earlier that decade. (Present use levels, however, still remain well below the highs reported in the late 1970s.) Approximately 8 out of 10 12th graders surveyed said that marijuana was “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain, a percentage that has remained largely unchanged since 2009, but is well below previously reported highs circa the late 1990s. …

And what no public officials wish to acknowledge is the obvious elephant in the room. The reality that an increasing number of teens are steadily turning away from the legally regulated intoxicants alcohol and tobacco — a factoid that once again affirms that the most effective way to keep substances out of teens’ hands isn’t through criminal prohibition; it is through legalization, regulation, and public education. So why does the federal government (as well as the mainstream media) acknowledge the effectiveness of this strategy when it comes to booze and cigarettes, but continue to turn its back on these common sense principles when it comes to pot?

Sullum focuses on the oft-parroted trope that legalizing pot sends the “wrong message to children”:

Looking at annualpast-month, and “daily” use (meaning use on 20 or more of the previous 30 days) among eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders, you can see there were some slight increases and slight decreases, but none of the changes was statistically significant. “These findings should put to rest any claims that reforming marijuana laws and discussing the benefits will somehow contribute to more teens using marijuana,” says Mason Tvert, director of communications at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). “It’s time for prohibition supporters to stop hiding behind teens when debating marijuana policy.”

Pete Guither adds:

One third of 12th graders get their marijuana from someone else’s medical marijuana…. Um… think about it. Would you rather they had gotten it from a criminal dealer?